Leesburg elections must share ballot with national races
By Caitlin Gibson,
On Nov. 6, Leesburg voters will head to polling sites across town and cast their ballots in hotly contested national races: President Obama or Mitt Romney? Timothy M. Kaine (D) or fellow former governor George Allen (R)?
But for the first time in Leesburg’s history, the November ballot will include candidates running for mayor and three seats on the Town Council, names that are less recognized representing issues that are far less familiar amid the barrage of news about the national campaigns.
For Leesburg resident Barbara Bayles-Roberts, who led the petition effort last year to move town elections from May to November, the change is a victory, signaling hope that higher voter turnout could boost participation in the down-ballot town races.
“My whole goal was to get more voter participation,” Bayles-Roberts said. “I don’t care who you are; I want you to participate in your local government and consider it as important. It’s perhaps more important to your daily life than some of the national issues.”
The turnout for Leesburg’s May elections has historically been low, generally from 8 to 15 percent of Leesburg’s roughly 25,000 registered voters in recent years.
“People are trained young: November, November, November,” Bayles-Roberts said. “In May, you could hardly get them out.”
The majority of Leesburg voters seemed to agree. Bayles-Roberts’ petition was supported by more than 3,000 signatures, and the subsequent referendum question passed with more than 6,000 votes in November. The council drafted an amendment to the Leesburg Town Charter to move the elections. The amendment was approved by the Virginia General Assembly and the U.S. Department of Justice. It specifies that local races will continue to be nonpartisan; candidates may not officially align themselves with either party, although both the local Democratic and Republican committees have made endorsements in the past.
Before the referendum, the Town Council had voted against moving the town election date. Council member David S. Butler, who was among those who opposed the switch, voiced concern that shifting to November would politicize the local races.
His viewpoint hasn’t changed.
“I think everybody’s going to be talking about the presidential race, and I think it’s going to be very difficult for the town races to not get lost,” Butler said.
He pointed to statistics indicating that the vast majority of residents who vote in November have not previously voted in town elections.
“The name recognition of people on the Town Council is around the 15 to 20 percent range,” he said. “So it’s likely that 80 percent of people who vote this fall will not only have never voted in a town election before, but won’t know the names of any of their people on the Town Council.
“It’s highly likely, in my opinion, that the endorsements and the sample ballots will be much more significant than they ever were in May.”
Butler is among three candidates recently endorsed by the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, which also supported Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd and new council member candidate Jim Sisley.
The committee limited its endorsements to candidates who asked for party support, said Evan MacBeth, committee chairman.
“We, too, are concerned about local issues becoming under-
represented in the discussion as a result of the national race,” MacBeth said. “This is among the reasons we decided to endorse in August, before the fall campaign’s traditional sprint. We wanted candidates for council to be as prepared and supported as possible to get their voices and issues into the town’s conversation.”
As of Thursday, the Loudoun County Republican Committee had not endorsed candidates in the town council races.
Bayles-Roberts, who has focused her recent efforts on volunteering for the Romney-Ryan campaign, said the burden rests with the candidates to make their names and platforms known.
“If local issues get lost, it’s because local officers are not doing enough to be out there,” she said. “I think that’s what’s happened over the years. The same people were being reelected by the same people, their friends and neighbors and co-workers that live in the town.”
Widening the circle of voters will force those candidates to make their positions better understood, she said.
There are important local issues for voters to consider, Butler said.
“We want to keep taxes low . . . we still have to address what to do with King Street, with the downtown improvements, what to do about [bicycle and pedestrian] trails, how to get people across the [Leesburg] bypass safely.” Some improvement projects still need to be funded, he added.
But with the media centered on national campaigns, shielding the local elections from broader partisan intensity poses a challenge — especially in Loudoun, which has been identified as a potentially critical battleground in a pivotal swing state.
“That’s a big difference between Leesburg and some other places that have moved their elections from May to November. If you are primarily one party or another in a location, then moving the elections to November doesn’t have nearly the same effect, because you’re still picking among a bunch of Democrats or Republicans generally,” Butler said.
“But with Loudoun being so purple, you can’t help but have these elections become partisan.”